On Statues

Even commentators sympathetic to the aims of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) have been at pains to point out that the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College is not the most significant element of the campaign’s platform. Amia Srinivasan observes that ‘Neither the Cape Town nor the Oxford campaign has ever been just about statues.’ Amit Chaudhuri laments that ‘it would be…sad if Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford became identified with the statue in Oriel College alone’ because its ambition beyond the removal of the statue, namely that of decolonising education, is more significant. David Olusoga worries that by building their manifestos around calls for the taking down of statues, the more complex and worthy ideas around decolonisation raised by these campaigns have been ‘distorted into a simple right-wrong, yes-no statue debate’. I don’t disagree (much) with these views and indeed, if you want a right-wrong, yes-no answer, this essay will disappoint. But they beg the question of what statues mean and why we keep putting them up if they are so easily relegated to an epiphenomenal register of political discourse.

It’s worth remembering that RMFO itself has never downplayed the significance of the statue in the way that some of those writing in solidarity with it have done. It describes its mission as that of decolonising ‘the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond’ (emphasis mine) and lists as its first aim the intention to tackle ‘the plague of colonial iconography (in the form of statues, plaques and paintings) that seeks to whitewash and distort history’. In addition, it aims to reform the Eurocentric curricula to which university students continue to be subject and to address the under-representation and lack of welfare provision for black and minority ethnic staff and students at Oxford. One way to think about the place of the statue in this debate is to see it as a means to an end: as Srinivasan rightly notes, ‘complaints of structural racism and calls for curriculum reform don’t draw public attention like the toppling of a statue, and the RMF leaders know this.’ But while clarifying that its campaign is indeed ‘about more than a statue’, RMFO nonetheless insists that

statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission that – as it stands – Oxford does not consider their history to be important. This is incompatible with a community that posits itself as progressive, enlightened and intellectually honest.

Without wanting to suggest that the success of RMFO should be judged by whether the statue falls or endures (it shouldn’t), I want to think with RMFO about what the expressive function of statues entails. Writing in a very different context, Judith Butler has famously worried that the relegation of injustices to the realm of the ‘merely cultural’ effectively downgrades the urgency with which they demand redress. For ‘merely cultural’ read ‘merely symbolic’, and the risk of disappearance of the demand for iconographic decolonisation (exactly what Oriel College might wish for) becomes obvious: if RMFO is about more than ‘just’ a statue and if we all agree that the statue is ‘merely symbolic’, then we might as well get beyond, behind, and beneath the symbol to address its putative ‘real’ while leaving the symbol itself intact. Meanwhile the possibility that the ‘merely symbolic’ has material consequences remains unexplored.

rhodes oxford


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Damage, Unincorporated*, Part One: The Chaoplexity of Collective Violence

The below mirrors closely a review essay I recently completed for the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, which should appear at some point in the not-too-distant future. The books under discussion are Reimagining War in the 21st Century: From Clausewitz to Network-Centric Warfare by Manabrata Guha (London and New York: Routledge, 2011); The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity by Antoine Bousquet (London: Hurst and Co., 2009); and Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (2nd Edition) by James Der Derian (London and New York: Routledge, 2009). Part two will follow shortly (lookie here).

I am the last in line that started with who?
With John von Neumann
If it’s the end of time so be it
But hey, it was Truman
Who set me free
I am half man
I’m almost like you
But you’ll be god-damned when I’m through
It’s a new day
So open the bay
And set this free

Black Francis, ‘Half Man’ (2008)

War is different now. On this Manabrata Guha, (our very own) Antoine Bousquet and James Der Derian agree. And their parallel accounts of the impact of technology on war – or more precisely, on the purportedly distinct Western way of war – share some other features. As is to be expected, each engages with traditions of thinking about violence and humanity’s remaking of the natural. Clausewitz looms over all three works, which could be said to share an investment in the tension derived from him between war as a kind of friction and war as a kind of instrument. All three also address a looser set of everyday ideas about (post)modern war, whether in the disconnection of bombers from their targets or the science fiction resonances found in near-instant communication, virtual reality targeting and cyborg warriors.

The question concerning technology – to put it in Martin Heidegger’s formulation, one which concerns all three authors to similar degrees – has gained considerable ground in International Relations and cognate disciplines over the last decades. In large part driven by Der Derian’s early work on post-structuralism and speed, theoretical inquiry into the nature and effects of technological progress has more recently been reinforced by considerable ‘real world’ relevance: in the explosion of social networking and its attendant ‘revolutions’, the increasing deployment of unmanned drones by the US military in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the general discourse of post-Cold War security threats from non-state actors in the form of cyber-attacks, miniaturised weapons systems or black market dirty bombs. As the impact of technology apparently spreads and metastasises, scholarly attention is turning to the sociological and ethical dimensions of digitised networks at war.

So what has the information bomb done to the modalities of collective violence?

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